Friday, March 24, 2017

Writing Exercise #7: Asking Why

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

People are one of the best writing prompts out there. A day of people watching will give you endless story ideas if you're diligent to bring a pen and paper, and are willing to ask yourself, "Why? Why did they just do that?"

"Why is she wearing pipe cleaners on her head?"
"Why is his cat on a leash?"
"Why is that couple arguing?"
"Why is that kid's leg in a cast?"
"Why is she crying?"

But beyond the simplicity of people-watching, the individuals around you often prove to be puzzles that need a little solving. Have you ever had someone in your circle do something outrageous and you couldn't quite figure out why? Maybe it was just something small, inconsequential. And maybe it stuck with you because it seemed so out of character.

What about people who make news headlines? Have you ever wondered, "WHY? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?"

Sure you have. We all wonder. The people around us are often mysteries, but the truth is that most of the time, people act in a manner which makes absolute sense to them. Most people don't wander around doing random, aimless things. Actions, even ludicrous ones, are often nothing more than the next step on a road started some time back. Today, we're going to explore this a bit.

Here's what I want you to do:

Use your noggin and think back. Can you zero in on a moment where you were completely baffled by another person's actions? Think, think, think! Once you have the moment in your mind (and yes, it's okay to embellish it!), I want you to work backward and develop a list of plausible reasons for that person's action. Do me a favor and change the person's name, okay? We aren't trying to embarrass anyone. On the contrary, this exercise should show that there's often more to an action than we can can easily see.

Set it up like this:


Tom shows up to a wedding wearing smeared clown make-up, muddy boots, and carrying a wrench.

-He's a professional clown and was on his way to a gig when his car broke down. He walked a mile looking for help but the church was the only thing open on a Saturday.
-He's a debt collector for the mob. He was throwing his five-year-old daughter a birthday party when he got word that a sneaky debtor had returned to town for his sister's wedding.
-He's the groom and he's late. He fell asleep after a rowdy bachelor party and his best man took advantage--dressed him like a clown and super-glued the wrench to his hand before dumping him on a park bench to sleep it off.

Okay, my example is silly. But think you can do something similar? It takes a bit of brainpower, but it's good for you to consider the whys behind the curious actions you see out there.

Remember, when you participate in our exercises, you're automatically entered into a drawing where winners have the opportunity to submit a question for our next Go Teen Writers LIVE video panel. We'll have another one for you very soon. Details here.

Now do a little people watching and get to work!


  1. Okay, so I kind of just let my silly side take over, but perhaps I'll at least make someone laugh. :)

    Action: Alfred was walking down main street, a viking helmet on his head, strumming a guitar and singing off-key (yes, I really looked out my window at work one day, and saw some random guy walking down he road just like this...).

    -It was a dare from his cousin, and it was either do this, or pay $10.
    -He's trying to make some cash, so he stands at the street corner with a sign that says "Will NOT play for $1 a minute."
    -He is bored, and wants to give the locals something to think about (mission accomplished).
    -He is on his way to or from a Celtic Rock gig at the local wine bar.
    -A police office in disguise, trying to catch those people who speed down main street.
    -Someone had a little too much to drink...
    -It's a nice summer day, and what better to do than go for a walk and play some guitar? So Alfred steps out his front door, completely oblivious to the fact that he had forgotten to remove his viking hat.
    -There's a sick little girl down the road, and he's going to stand outside her window and cheer her up.

    ~Julian Daventry

    1. Ooh, maybe he was a NaNo winner. :)

      Alfred sounds fun.


    2. This definitely made me laugh!

      Number 7 was my favorite: "So Alfred steps out his front door, completely oblivious to the fact that he had forgotten to remove his viking hat."

      Good job!


    3. He was definitely involved in NaNo... but he lost. And this was his pre-decided consequence.

      *shivers at the thought of actual consequences for losing NaNo*

  2. If I see someone doing something and wonder why, does it have to be someone that I know, or can I make up a name for that random person I saw?
    *sorry if this is confusing*

    1. I think it could be just anyone that you observe. At least that's how I read it.


    2. Okay, thanks, Ann! ;)

  3. Action: Janice driving along the freeway, wiping away tears and mouthing ‘why’.
    1. She just lost a loved one.
    2. Someone just broke up with her.
    3. Someone called her and said her house burned to the ground.
    4. She just came from the doctors with a difficult diagnosis.
    5. She’s a single mom and just lost the job she needed to take care of her family.
    6. A loved one was in an accident and might not make it. She's going to say her goodbyes.
    7. Life might have decided to skip the lemons and go straight for the sucker punch to the stomach and she’s just tired from the constant pounding.
    8. She might be super sensitive and just got a B on her finals.
    9. Her house might have been foreclosed on and she doesn't know where's going to live.
    10. She might be driving back from the movie theater after watching her favorite character die.

    ~Sarah R.

    1. I like number 7. That happens a lot.... Of course life does sometime give me Lemonade.

    2. All very real possibilities. Great job.


  4. Action: Frank was playing firework wars with his cousin.
    1. He didn't know better.
    2. He couldn't play with his friends.
    3. He didn't have nuclear warheads to play with instead.
    4. He ate the marshmallows for the marshmallow war.
    5. He wanted to go home with a third degree burn.
    6. He wanted to practice his aim for WWIII.
    7. Someone dared him.
    8. His cousins neglected to mention that you can't back down.
    9. He has a death wish.

    1. LOL. But glad I'm not a playmate to Frank. :o


    2. I think Frank has some problems...
      6. He wanted to practice his aim for WWIII.
      *That is so true. Lol*

    3. I'm thinking either number 3 or 9.

  5. 4-year-old Cameron slaps his babysitter (me) hard in the face in the middle of a hilarious game with a toy alligator.
    -The babysitter had just won over the alligator and he hates to lose.
    -He thought the babysitter's teeth looked like an alligator's when she started to laugh, and that scared him.
    -He forgot the alligator was fake and when it went to bite him he got scared.
    -He only just remember a past traumatic experience with an alligator, and he got scared.
    -He was suddenly afraid the babysitter wasn't playing a game anymore, and he got scared.
    (Some experience with traumatized children has made me realize most behavior issues lead back to fear, but there's still the question 'why'--why are they afraid?)

    1. Ouch. Who scared who worse there?

      Fear can make us do crazy things...


    2. Gosh! That's must have been some scary alligator toy. :)

  6. Action: Two random dudes driving down a highway between Utah and Wyoming in a shorts car, wearing tuxes. (Clarification: This is the middle of nowhere. There are no big towns within at least 100 miles. This is a long journey, undertaken in tuxes in a sports car.)

    -They got really drunk at a wedding, decided to just get in the car and drive as long as they could, miraculously managed not to kill anybody driving drunk, woke up the next morning in the middle of nowhere with nothing but their car and their tuxes and had to find their way back.
    -They're going to a wedding a long way away but by the time they get there it'll be too late to change so they had to get into their tuxedos now.
    -They're filming a REALLY weird buddy cop movie and needed a long, mostly deserted stretch of land to do a bunch of takes (over and over and over again) on
    -The whole world we live in is actually just the setting of a really weird buddy cop movie and that was the only point at which my life intersected the main storyline

    1. Now that's something you don't see every day... Bet it was a fun ride. :)


  7. My choice of observance was a conversation that I overheard some years ago but has stuck in my head as something I need to put in a story.

    Bob and Joe were sitting on a park bench out side of a national park bathhouse. Bob was on the phone, talking with Larry, complaining about Steven. Joe kept up a running commentary on all that Bob said, aimed at Bob but said to no-one in particular. "Well you know what they say... Great minds talk about ideas, averages minds about events, small minds about people..."

    -I think that Steven, Bob, Joe, and Larry are colleagues and are not content.
    -With more imagination, Steven is a CEO of one company, Bob of another, Larry has to listen because Bob is in charge, but Joe is just a friend

    A red sports car races down our street, a small T with two dead ends. It fishtails around the curves, and charges back up to do donuts in front of our house. It is seen doing the same thing again, 9 months later, minus the donuting. Then again the day after.

    -Because he is rich, young, and stupid
    -Someone told him that crashing was fun
    -Thought our neighborhood needed livening up
    -He wanted to impress a friend
    -He wanted to use up his warranty
    -Loved the juxtaposition of swerving a sports car in a quiet neighborhood of in the woods

    1. Nifty dialogue bit. And the red car...that's different. *shaking head* Those are good reasons.


  8. Action: Lenny kicks neighbor's door at 2 A.M., splintering bottom panel.

    -He thought it was his house and forgot the key. That upset him.
    -Wanted to break in and steal.
    -His internal clock was whacked from one too many daylight savings times, his arms full, and he didn't know his own strength when he "knocked" to pay neighbors a visit.
    -He's an artist snob and didn't like the door's paint job.
    -Being an adamant advocate for trees, he made it his mission to kick any door made from murdered oaks.
    -He had to know if the foot was mightier than the door.
    -The neighbors were crooks and he was an undercover cop who would singlehandedly arrest them.
    -He had amnesia and thought he was a cat door installer.
    -Revenge. Neighbors kicked his door previous night.
    -He heard a cry for help inside.
    -He was drunk or on drugs and angry with his neighbors.


    1. I loved this, especially the fifth one. ;)

      Great job!


    2. -Revenge. Neighbors kicked his door previous night.
      That one was funny.
      I also like the fifth one. xD

  9. Action: A group of teenagers dressed as Disney Royalty walk out of a house. (It's not Halloween.)

    ~They think it's Halloween
    ~They're been hired to preform at a little girl's birthday party
    ~They're trying to start a new fashion trend
    ~Their friends dared them to
    ~They just really like Disney
    ~They go to a private school where the uniforms just happen to look like Disney costumes
    ~They wanted something interesting to post on Facebook


    1. *Perform, not preform. ;)


  10. Action: (changed names) Claire and Leah have been great friends since third grade. But one day, completely out of the blue, Claire is ignoring Leah's existence at the lunch table. Leah is trying to hold a conversation but Claire is trying to show her as much of her back as she can. Julie, Amber, and I try to tell her that Leah is talking but Claire keeps ignoring her until Leah, who is very sensitive, starts to cry. The next day, Claire is still a little frosty, but everything is almost back to normal.

    -Claire had a mood swing
    -Claire had something going on at home and took it out on Leah
    -Claire was trying to prove some sort of point Leah was not aware of
    -Claire had a very prized plastic fire truck hat that Leah said she liked and Claire thought she wanted to steal it, then when her mom discreetly threw it away because it was twenty years old and she blamed Leah

    1. Poor Leah. :(
      Good job. *Thumbs up*

  11. Action: Connor, a teenage boy, is sitting on cold, stone steps with barely even a jacket on. He is all alone and is really thin.
    -parents are drug addicts and use all their money on drugs (can't afford to get their son a jacket)
    -Connor is trying to act tough
    -recently got robbed of his coat, and money, and is looking for his friends who ditched him
    -has been drinking and really doesn't feel cold at all
    -homeless child
    -Connor is on a diet (gone wrong) and thinks that going coatless will somehow improve his already thin self
    -I hallucinated
    -Connor got lost and didn't wear a jacket because he thought it was a summer day

    1. Loving the 'I hallucinated' explanation ;-)

    2. The last two are hilarious. xD

  12. A girl is hopping around a sports hall holding a Tupperware box full of crumbs to her ear, strumming the rubber band. (I didn’t even make this up!)

    - She is practicing necromancy and summoning dead spirits by strumming the band
    - The crumbs are miniature bombs and she’s strumming the band to mask the ticking noise
    - She’s an alien in disguise and unaware of the normal social behaviour of humans
    - She’s a spy and needs to check her radio (the box) is working by seeing if the guys at HQ can hear the band vibrating
    - She tripped over her guitar, hurt her foot and broke it. She needs to practice strumming and has resorted to using her food tech box
    - She’s been attempting to invent a new musical instrument and inspiration has just struck (I sometimes hop around the living room when I get an idea!)
    - Someone dared her
    - She was hoping we’d all follow her and the strumming around the sports hall like the Pied Piper

    1. Haha!! - She’s an alien in disguise and unaware of the normal social behavior of humans

  13. Action: A college-age young man rides a bicycle down the sidewalk, carrying a 5 foot piece of thin PVC pipe against his shoulder like a lance.

    -His friends dared him to bicycle-joust another guy.
    -He's making a lightsaber and the PVC is going to be the blade.
    -The PVC pipe is the baton in a really weird relay race.
    -He's​ an engineer, and he and some of his classmates are using the PVC pipe to construct a model of something for one of their classes.

    1. A five foot PVC pipe? He must have good balance.
      -The PVC pipe is the baton in a really weird relay race. (Haha!)

  14. Action: A boy is sitting on his roof and brandishing a lightsaber.

    -He is a major Star Wars fan.
    -He's afraid of the neighborhood cat who is now roaming in his yard.
    -He likes the scenery.
    -He recently pranked his older brother and is now hiding.
    -He is trying to scare away pesky birds.
    -He is bored.
    -He is trying to get on AFV.

    1. This is hilarious! xD
      A boy is sitting on his roof and brandishing a lightsaber.

  15. It would be really helpful for me, and maybe others too, to read an article about how to decide what happens to your character. I have a hard time deciding what I want to happen in my story, and why.

  16. I agree, it'd be helpful. So do I. I always have questions like:
    -How will my story turn out?
    -Is my character really realistic?
    -Will my WIP have a good climax?
    -Will people be hanging on my every word?
    It would really be helpful if there was a post about that. :)

  17. Action: A teacher pulls a grime-covered gym uniform from a garbage can…in a room that is about as far from the gym as you can get. He then places it on the Lost-and-Found Table.
    -The gym uniform fell into the garbage from a shelf or something, and the teacher saw and pulled it out to put it in the nearby lost and found.
    -The teacher set it on the edge of the garbage can while arranging something else on the Lost and Found, and it slid in.
    -Someone pulled a prank, and threw away the gym uniform, and the teacher saw it and figured it didn’t belong in the garbage can.

  18. Action:
    A man sits on a park bench on a misty afternoon, wearing jeans and the top half of a suit and singing an opera in beautiful warm voice.
    -The opera house hasn't opened yet and his pants are in his dressing room.
    -His best friend dared him to sit in the park and sing an opera.
    -He's homeless and a wonderful singer and likes hanging out in the park.
    -He's waiting for his pants to be finished getting dry cleaned.
    -He's practicing a song for a friend's wedding and doesn't want to get his pants muddy.

  19. Action:
    Three police cars drive right beside each other down highway, VERY SLOWLY. They block the entire highway, and cause traffic jams.
    - A fellow officer died recently, and they are acting as a sort of procession.
    - They are trying to keep a criminal from escaping, so they are stopping traffic to make sure: if he manages to get off on an exit, other officers will nab him.
    - All three of them are really low on gas and tire air, and just happened to be beside each other.
    - They are rolling something invisible and very large down the highway to some secret base.
    - They dared each other, and the first one to speed up loses.
    - They were hit with a slowness ray.
    - They are part of a covert operation, and the three of them driving slowly is a signal to someone in a helicopter.
    - They are drunk, but having extreme lawfulness, they are driving carefully.
    - Somebody put tape over the tube to the combustion chamber, for a prank.
    - The garage mechanic disengaged some piece of equipment accidentally.
    - Maybe they're just jerks and want to slow up traffic.

    ~ Gracelyn

  20. Action: Man goes into the elementary school that's been shut down since before I was born.
    -He's the custodian
    -He's on a committee to decide what to do with the school
    -He secretly teaches magic in there to young teens
    -He's an evil investor who wants to buy the school for his own purposes (which would shut down the still-active playground and soccer field that's important to the community)
    -He's an evil investor who wants to turn the building into a factory destroying the air in the small town
    -He was the principal of the school and still has the key
    -He broke in to see if there were any valuables
    -It leads to a magic portal to another dimension